Night Hiking


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Peak to Peak Trail and Wilderness Links


When I think of hiking at night, I'm not talking about using headlamps or night vision goggles. I'm talking about going the same way our ancestors did. I'm talking about opening your eyes, using your ears and nose, and training yourself how to operate efficiently in nature without the need for technology.

Hiking at night can be a totally new experience for many. As humans we are not nocturnal creatures. Our eyes are our primary sense, and they are made for color vision using lots of light. To hike at night, is to intentionally allow yourself to slip out of your comfort zone and connect with the forest in a new and interesting way.

Because most humans these days are urban, and today's cities are places of lights, streets, cars, people, etc. the woods at night become the antithesis of what our normal life is. The woods at night are dark, trails are hard to find and narrow, walking is slow, and rarely will you run into people out for a family outing at 3am in the national forest.

One thing I have found observing others as I have learned this skill and taught it to others, is the fear that some seem to have of the woods at night. I think this is one of the reasons the movie "The Blair Witch" did so well. There is this irrational fear of noises at night, things that can't be identified. This leads to people hiding in tents at night. You probably know people that feel safer inside a tent and would never dream of sleeping under a tarp, or even out under the stars. Let's face it, if an animal wanted to get you, a few microns of nylon won't stop it, or even slow it down.

Listening Halt - The listening halt is the very first step. You must do this to help adjust yourself and your senses. The more you practice night hiking, the better you will be, and the quicker you will adjust. To perform a listening halt, go into the woods before dark or at twilight. Go all the way into the woods until you are away from the trail head or any signs of artificial light. Once twilight is over, you must wait in the woods a minimum of 30 minutes (no matter how good you get) for your eyes to adjust, to become accustomed to the noises and smells of the wilderness your hiking in, and to adjust you attitude to the night. You'll find this time is similar to meditation - remain quiet and don't use any light. Just listen to the sounds of the woods and look to see the differences in light and shadow. 

Adjusting your eyes - your eyes must become accustomed to the low light levels of the night, nighttime is very rarely ever totally dark. Stars and moonlight often provide more than enough light to operate in. For your eyes to adjust you must refrain from using white light for 30 minutes. If you must use a light, use a filtered lens preferably red, lest preferable is green.  The human eyes have structures called rods and cones in the back of the eye. This is the area where the image your looking at is focused. Cones detect colors, Rods only detect light (basically black and white). Humans (and most primates) detect green color best, this has been hypothesizes to be an evolutionary adaptation because most foliage is green, and our ancestors needed to be able to determine slight differences in the different leaves of different trees. Dogs have no cones in their eyes, and see almost as well at night as they do during the day, but they only see in black and white.

Off Center Vision - There are more cones in the center of your vision, and more rods on the periphery of your vision. As we discussed before, the rods see black and white, therefore they are the only source of true night vision in humans. The trick you must learn is to look off to the side of what you want to focus on. It's not a natural way to look at things, so it takes some practice. An exercise you can try is to allow yourself to adjust to the dark, and then try staring at something; you will find that you can hardly make it out. Now look off to the side of what your were looking at and you'll notice you see more details on it than what your looking at now.

Use the Shadows - when trying to stay on the trail, you won't always see the trail. Usually a trial is clear of vegetation, and the sides are not. The trail will normally be a lighter area with dark foliage to the sides, or will be a darker color (because the surface of the trail is made of dark material) and the bushes and grasses to the side are lighter. Many times on a trail this switches back and forth. Learn to use this, also keep a red light and map handy in case you have to do a quick map check or look for a blaze.

Avoid White Light! - I've found a great deal more night hikers than I used to, but they all seem to be using headlamps. If you run across one of these people, get off the trail and protect your night vision. A technique is to close one eye and use the open one until they pass. You will have reduced night vision for a while, but it's better than having to wait another 30 minutes to get it back. Same thing can happen around campsites, shelters, and roads.

Feel your way around - try to make a system of how you pack your gear and set up your camp. This way you can feel your way around at night and avoid using white light to find gear, get in and out of bed, or do other camp chores.

Adjust your attitude - Many hikers pride themselves in their mileage and speed. When you night hike, you'll have to slow down. Night hiking is a way to finish mileage uncompleted from daytime, or can be a special way to hike and enjoy nature. It's a hard thing to describe, but imagine if we as humans never mapped the dark side of the moon - we would miss half of what the moon offers. The same with the forest, when we only explore the daytime, we miss half the experience of what nature has going on.

Cross Country Night Hiking - to hike without trails at night requires even more practice. The main thing to learn is trust your compass, and get a compass that has a glowing dial for night use like a military lensatic compass. You have to determine your route prior to starting out, and try to divide it into legs. Try to end legs on landmarks you should be able to recognize at night, like hill tops, roads and intersections, creeks, etc. More on using this technique will be included in the compass use page.

Night hiking is not for everyone. I recommend you try it a couple of times. Even if you don't take it up as a new form of recreation, it will give you more skills you can use on your normal backpacking trips.